The Most Important Thing - Isolation, Belonging, and a Vision for the Future

The Most Important Thing - Isolation, Belonging, and a Vision for the Future


9 min read

The Most Important Thing

Isolation, Belonging, and a Vision for the Future. Republished from


As the spread of COVID-19 has led many organizations to very rapidly implement social distancing policies and many governments to implement shelter-in-place orders, I believe the greatest societal shift in years is happening before our eyes. Colleges have students learning through online education, companies have employees doing remote work, K-12 schools have been cancelled, and clubs, bars, and restaurants have been closed.

While financial and medical hardship for individuals and families and systemic economic, healthcare, and governmental mobilizations are playing out in these extraordinary times, I want to focus in on one topic of great importance: isolation and the feeling of belonging.

Politicians often get bogged down talking about the issues of the day. All of us are pieces of this grand system and it seems there’s always some problem we’re trying to solve. But what if we step back, look at the big picture, and ask, what is endgame; what is the vision for the future?

Let's look back three years ago to when I was in college.

My last two years of college I was in Scully Co-op, a food cooperative at Princeton University where every student (around 40) is placed into weekly cook shifts with whom they cook dinner (or weekend brunch) for the rest of the co-op. Joining in Fall 2017 as the founding group, we got free rein to shape the organization as we liked, no red tape from the university.

Long story short, Scully Co-op became more than a place to eat. It became home. A place of true community, where randomly selected students thrown together, given a space, given responsibility, and let loose could become friends. I spent a lot of, likely most of, my free time around 319 Scully Hall those two years. Inside and next to the co-op was a nice couch, big tables, and food; somewhere you could go and always find people, working, cooking, or talking, even at 2:00am. It was a place where you could truly talk and speak truths with people, attempt to work, or take a nap on the couch, surrounded by friends.

Princeton University is also home to something called eating clubs. These are a number of large houses on Prospect Avenue, home to organizations which you can join as juniors and seniors (and 2nd-semester sophomores). They are sort of a combination between a dining hall and fraternity. Unfortunately, membership can cost over $10,000 per year. But many people say it was in their eating club where they found true community, where they felt like they truly belonged. We’re all searching for community.

Within the past few years, the Facebook groups Tiger Confessions and Tiger Confessions++ have accomplished something very enlightening: given us a look into the minds of Princeton students via their anonymous submissions. The groups provided a venue for students to express their stories, including their insecurities and feelings of isolation and loneliness. Explore the posts and you’ll notice that these posts are not rare. If this is happening on a single college campus, what is happening across the country, with our children in K-12, our families, our employees, our executives, our retired persons, our disabled, our homeless, our veterans, our politicians, our rich, our poor? Across the world?

Isolation and the search for a feeling of belonging are not something unique to any group. Think of…

  • Well-off celebrities who start abusing substances, fall into depression, or commit suicide.
  • All the people who feel wronged by the world, who find solace in fitness.
  • Alan Turing, father of computer science, who was led to suicide or poisoning after being prosecuted for homosexual acts.
  • Buzz Aldrin, who fell into depression and alcohol addiction after retiring as an astronaut.
  • The recent college grad thrown into an apartment and a corporate job, with little wisdom and guidance from managers.
  • The child being bullied in K-12 who's too afraid to share this with parents or teachers.
  • Bullies themselves, so insecure that they need to assert power, although, they tend to end up ruining their lives when they grow up.
  • Divorced couples, driven through soul wrenching pain, in need of a bit of solace.

Everyone experiences problems with isolation and belonging. And no one will ever completely stop experiencing them.

Ask any senior citizen what they treasure most in life. Ask anyone what they wish for most at their deathbeds. I wager they all will say family, friends, and memories. If you were to acquire $100 million, what would you value in life? Perhaps you could get a Lamborghini, take a few trips, and have the freedom to spend time as you wish. But in those quiet moments at night, what fills the void? Demons from the past? Questions of identity and purpose?

The fact is that we’re all individual souls on our own journeys. You may spend most of the day with people, but at some point you’ll be alone with your thoughts. You are the only person you can truly depend on. We're all just bodies floating around in a chaotic world, making rational decisions. It's possible to find self-worth chasing your human potential. In fact, this might be the only way. But people, they can augment your identity to much more than itself alone.

So what is the endgame? Maybe all people need is a nice couch, big tables, and food; somewhere you can go and always find people, working, cooking, or talking, even at 2:00am; a special place where you belong.

Are insular family units the solution? Is communal living? I couldn't say. But what if that special place where you belonged was every house, every street, every city, every state?

I’ll leave you with a quote from Tribe by Sebastian Junger.

It’s about what we can learn from tribal societies about loyalty and belonging and the eternal human quest for meaning. It’s about why — for many people — war feels better than peace and hardship can turn out to be a great blessing and disasters are sometimes remembered more fondly than weddings or tropical vacations. Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary. — Sebastian Junger, Tribe

And another from Poor Richard's Retirement by Aaron Clarey.

You need to find fellow souls with the full and complete understanding that nearly all of them will someday leave and never be seen again. But no matter how much you like them, no matter how much you love them, don't be sad when they go, either because of life or death. Just be happy you got to converse with them while they were there. That is the secret to a successful retirement. — Aaron Clarey, Poor Richard's Retirement